Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby is caving on his demand to add a key parochial provision to the long-stalled disaster aid bill, potentially clearing the way for passage later this week.
The Alabama Republican formally agreed to drop the fight — which had held up a deal for weeks and even begun to rattle members of his own party — after a one-on-one meeting with President Donald Trump on Monday yielded a commitment to address harbor maintenance provisions outside the disaster relief package.
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Shelby, who met with Trump, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Acting OMB Director Russ Vought to discuss disaster aid and other spending measures, vehemently denied that he was holding up disaster aid negotiations.
“We got a commitment from the president today that he’s going to with us on another avenue toward that so we’ll go from there,” he said. “I’m not holding up anything. I want to get to yes.”
Shelby’s demand to boost harbor maintenance was starting to annoy House Republicans, who considered going into their own negotiations with Democrats as both parties sought to close out talks on the disaster relief measure this week, according to multiple congressional sources.
Shelby added that Senate and House leadership will meet with White House officials on Tuesday.
The harbor conflict — which has persisted in several of Congress’ funding negotiations over the last two years — has spurred angst within the House GOP caucus and among White House officials, who are eager to dole out cash to storm-stricken farmers in states like Georgia and Alabama that have already seen a full growing season go by without aid.
Republican and Democratic leaders have made it a priority to send a massive disaster aid package to Trump’s desk this week, before Congress decamps for a week-long recess.
“We’re going to get there this week,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a brief interview Monday.
But talks once again sputtered this weekend, as the GOP’s intraparty spat over Shelby’s harbor fund provision, among other minor issues, kept Republican leadership from presenting a new counteroffer to Democrats.
“They cannot come to an agreement amongst themselves,” one aide familiar with the negotiations said.
The delay over the weekend threw into doubt whether Congress can approve long-delayed aid for a half-dozen states from California to Florida by week’s end.
“If it’s going to be done this week, it’s gotta move fast between now and tomorrow,” Shelby said.
Some believe that reaching a deal in the House first would be the quickest way to make sure the funding package gets out the door before the Memorial Day recess.
Democrats and Republicans have already settled most of the sticking points in the sprawling aid bill, which also includes billions of dollars in humanitarian aid to tackle the migrant crisis at the southern border.
That includes the dispute over Puerto Rico — which for weeks had been the biggest hurdle for congressional negotiators, with Trump himself weighing in every few days on Twitter.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) confirmed Monday that negotiations over Puerto Rico have largely been resolved but said there were some issues related to the White House’s emergency funding request for the southern border.
“Puerto Rico’s going to be in good shape. We’re trying to come to an agreement on the border. There were some things they asked for on the border, and some not,” Schumer said.
Asked about the holdup over the harbor fund, Schumer declined to comment.
Senate Republican leaders — who have, so far, backed Shelby — have argued that it’s the poison pill language from House Democrats that have complicated the talks.
Democrats have sought certain changes to the White House’s immigration policies, including treatment of asylum seekers, that some Republicans have opposed.
Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.), said the border funding request remains the biggest problem.
“Progress has been made on the other elements of it,” Thune said. “If the House and the president figure it out, the House can send us something this week and if it’s something the president can sign, we can get it done pretty quickly.”
Shoring up the harbor maintenance trust fund — which was created to dredge and deepen waterways nationwide — could result in billions of dollars of potential business in Shelby’s home state. The port of Mobile, Ala. has been the largest recipient in recent years, in part because the delta makes it costly to maintain.
It’s far from the first time that Shelby — who holds one of the Senate’s most powerful gavels — has dragged budget talks to a halt at the 11th hour as he’s pushed to preserve the harbor money.
The same issue has been one of the final sticking points in multiple rounds of budget talks as congressional leaders tried to close out a deal, including earlier this year.
Some Republicans have objected to Shelby’s demand — exempting the fund from Congress’ stiff spending caps — which they see as yet another budget gimmick that balloons the deficit.
White House officials, too, have argued that it’s unnecessary because the harbor program is already paid for by fees.
Melanie Zanona and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.